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The habit of theatre (and protests)….

I spent the day in Richmond yesterday, where - between the Orange Tree in the afternoon and Richmond Theatre on the green in the evening - I bore witness to the persistence of the theatregoing habit in this village-like part of south-west London, where the sense of contented English peacefulness is only shattered by the roar of planes from being on the direct flightpath into Heathrow.

Both houses were packed for respectively cranky, quirky morality plays about religion and sex from Nigel Dennis (The Making of Moo, first seen at the Royal Court in 1957) and Bernard Shaw (Mrs Warren’s Profession, originally premiered in 1893); and like those planes, both plays guarantee to shatter the peace of theatregoers looking for a comfortable time in the theatre

If they’re still awake, that is. It’s one of the hazards of a theatre-in-the-round like the Orange Tree that you can count the number of sleepers on all four sides; and on Thursday afternoons, the slumberers seem to be out in force. Ditto, in the evening, where at one point I looked over my shoulder to see three people comfortably asleep in the row right behind me.

But at least there’s still a loyal and devoted audience here, and even if the revival of Mrs Warren’s Profession might seem perfect billing for them - the brand names of Bernard Shaw and Felicity Kendal are surely both a solid comfort factor - neither play are actually easy options.

Michael Billington, who directed a student production of The Making of Moo, while an undergraduate at Oxford, recently wrote a Guardian blog about the difficulties he faced in putting it on there for the Oxford Experimental Club in 1960. He came face-to-face with a case of theatrical censorship as his Anglo-Saxon tutor tried to impose his values on him.

As he explains, “In those days, however, one had to get ‘acting leave’ to engage in theatre. Halfway through rehearsals, I was told by my Anglo-Saxon tutor, Dennis Horgan, that he was refusing me permission to do the play: not because my Beowulf studies were suffering but because, as a devout Catholic, he detested the piece itself. This sparked merry hell. The front cover of Cherwell, the student paper, imposed my features on a drawing of Oxford’s Martyrs’ Memorial. Filled with the arrogance of youth, I also went to the head of my college, Alan Bullock, to say I had been unfairly treated. Bullock was forced to agree and, through gritted teeth, gave me permission to do the play. At which point Horgan resigned as junior dean of the college. A local row erupted into a national news story: partly because Bullock himself was a high-profile TV figure and was busy raising funds to transform St Catherine’s Society, as it then was, into a full-blown college. I remember a mad day in which I was pursued all over Oxford by representatives of Fleet Street’s finest, and awoke one Saturday morning to find myself plastered all over the Mail and Express. Eventually the row abated, the show went ahead, and my moderately inept production got a justifiably curt review from my future editor, Peter Preston.”

The play got Billington early national attention; but as he goes on to say, he is struck now by several things: “Regret that I damaged the career prospects of a young don. Astonishment that a play could arouse such impassioned feelings. But what hits me most of all is the way our attitudes to religion have changed. In 1960 we maintained the polite fiction that we were still a predominantly Christian country: any attack on religion, or indeed monarchy or the hereditary principle, was seen as an assault on our core values. Now atheism is intellectually de rigueur, blasphemy is routine and I notice that “Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People”, featuring Richard Dawkins, is a Christmas sell-out. A sign of progress? Possibly. But I wonder whether we haven’t swapped a faintly hypocritical lip-service towards religion for a new form of secular intolerance in which any espousal of faith is automatically mocked. I don’t regret directing The Making of Moo, and am eagerly looking forward to seeing how Dennis’s satire survives after all these years. At the same time, I have a sneaking regard for my ex-tutor who, even if he abused the whole basis of ‘acting leave’, stood up for a faith in which he passionately believed.”

So, too, of course, did the protestors, led by Christian Voice founder Stephen Green, who objected so publicly and vehemently to the BBC’s screening of a televised version of Jerry Springer - the Opera that they brought a private prosecution for blasphemy against the BBC and Avalon; as I previously reported here, when Green lost the case he was ordered to pay £90,000 costs, but insisted he did not have it and would have to declare himself bankrupt if they sought to pursue the debt. And, despite it all, earlier this year he was still spearheading a campaign of protest against the first amateur production of the show that was being staged in St Andrew’s, Scotland. I wonder if he’s been at the Arts Educational School in west London this week, where the students have been putting on a production of the show, too (and I’m planning on seeing tomorrow evening).

I don’t object to Green exercising his right to object to the piece, just as Mr Billington’s tutor did to his production of The Making of Moo, but by seeking to ban it in both cases, they wanted to stifle the debate that both precipated entirely. The great thing about theatre is that it lives (and sometimes dies) in the performance of it. And seeing The Making of Moo yesterday, I didn’t feel that much of a case was made for the play after all that effort. But I’m glad to have been able to see it for myself. So hats off, as always, to Sam Walters for giving us that opportunity.

And hats off, too, to the indomitable likes of Felicity Kendal, now an improbable-seeming 63, for keeping the faith with the theatre, and whose audience are clearly keeping their faith in her. Yes, Judi Dench is still going strong at 74 (going on 75, which she turns on December 9), and is about to return to the London stage in February to reprise the role of Titania in a new production A Midsummer Night’s Dream under the direction of Peter Hall that they first did together in 1962 (the year I was born!). Rosemary Harris is currently appearing on Broadway in The Royal Family at 82; Margaret Tyzack was recently, at the age of 78, in the National’s production of Phedre.

But it’s an ever-diminishing breed of actors who stay faithful to the theatre to the end. Julia McKenzie recently mentioned in an interview in the Daily Mail that she now finds that the demands of the theatre are simply too much: “I was doing eight shows a week, then collapsing into bed for the whole of Sunday in order to get ready for the Monday. It was no life, even though I loved it.”

And apart from the physical cost, there’s also the fear factor: there’s a lovely passage in Alan Bennett’s new play The Habit of the Art that puts its finger on this precisely, as the stage manager (played by Frances de la Tour) says, “Actors are like soldiers. The soldiers fear the enemy. The actors fear the audience. Fear of failing. Fear of forgetting, fear of art. Olivier ended up terrified. If you sat on the front row you could see him trembling.”

Sadly, Michael Gambon - who was to have played WH Auden in the play — also bowed out before it opened, for unspecified health reasons; could that speech contain the answer, and will we see him again onstage again, I wonder? Daniel Day-Lewis hasn’t been back onstage since he famously walked off it mid-performance at the National during a production of Hamlet in which he was playing the title role.

Day-Lewis is about to be seen in the new film version of the musical Nine, and as Baz Bamigboye reports in today’s Daily Mail, he sent Judi Dench, who is also in the film, a note promising her, “I won’t walk out on you this time!” She had been Gertrude to his Hamlet.

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